Imagine if you will. You visit a bakery not far from your home. It’s new. You know you’re going to love this place because they’ve hired a new baker who has recipes for breads, pastries, donuts, cakes and cinnamon rolls that are to die for.
Word has gotten out about this bakery. Crowds start forming lines each day, waiting for the new confections to come from this baker’s marvelous kitchen. After you purchase your cinnamon roll, you sit down to watch this baker in action—and you notice something right away. The baker doesn’t seem to have enough help. Everyday, he ends up trying to serve all the customers himself. He is scurrying back and forth, busy with all the requests of the people—but oblivious to what’s happening to him. His exhaustion is quickly becoming burn out. What’s worse, as you watch him for a few weeks, you see a change. This man is getting thin. Very thin. It almost seems like he is shriveling up. What’s the deal?
Suddenly, the problem becomes obvious to you. This man never stops to eat. The irony is, he is so busy serving bread to everyone else, he never stops to eat anything he serves. With food all around him, he is starving. Hmmm. Sound familiar?
This is a portrait of me
When I started teaching in 1979, I soon became so consumed with creating an excellent program—the right environment, studies, lesson plans or lectures each week—that I never recognized what was happening to me. My work became everything to me—it was my identity. And the reason I didn’t see any problem with this is because it was all under the guise of serving kids. After all—isn’t that a good thing? How could serving be unhealthy? And besides, the parents were clapping for me. Wasn’t this equal to the blessing of God? I couldn’t see the difference between the adrenaline of flattery and the authentic fulfillment of healthy work. What’s more, the satisfaction of seeing results from my work numbed me to the starving condition I was in.
In short, I never saw what was coming. I was blinded by the fact that I’d been taught all my life to “lose myself in service to others.” (And, by the way, I still believe in that philosophy). Sadly, my entire life was about feeding others and I’d run out of fuel along the way. I was now serving people on an empty tank. My symptoms? I began to resent the meetings I had to attend. My attitude went south. I got irritated with my colleagues. I ran short on patience with my students. I was exhausted all the time. I was hiding behind the noble act of teaching, feeling like a martyr. As stupid as this may sound, I thought it would look selfish to take some down time for myself.
It all came to a climax one afternoon more than twenty years ago as I stood in my home alone. My wife and I had purchased this home two years earlier. In our subdivision, the builders put the front lawn in, but left the back yard to the homeowner. In other words, the back lot was just dirt, rocks and tumbleweeds. Fortunately, those builders put a six foot high fence around the back yard—so no one could see it. That was great news for me at the time. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t put any lawn or shrubs in that back yard for over two years.
On that afternoon, I stood looking out of my sliding glass window at my back lot, thinking I should really put in a lawn. In that moment, it all suddenly dawned on me. A reality hit me like a load of bricks: I had treated my life like I had treated my lawn.
Over the next few minutes, the layers of this reality unfolded. My front lawn—the part that everyone can see—looked marvelous. The grass, bushes and trees were all beautiful. Similarly, my public role as a teacher was great: my lesson plans, my style, my teaching techniques, my programs. The show was good. But the back area—the private part—was dirt. And I neglected it because no one could see it. Ouch. In that moment, I realized I couldn’t sustain my current mode of operation. I was obsessed with my public work, but it was not coming out of the overflow of a full private life. I was a starving baker.
I am not alone in this dilemma
So many leaders—in a variety of disciplines—fail to tend to themselves, and eventually are unable to really serve others. Educators. Pastors. CEOs. Doctors. Politicians. They are starving intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. When they do read books, magazines, their Bibles, or listen to CDs or podcasts, it is always for someone else. They are always preparing some program for others. They read for “program’ not for personal growth. They neglect to consume the nourishment and apply it to their own lives. Their “talk” is great. Their “walk” becomes fake. They go through the motions, but don’t really spend time digesting anything.
Starving bakers—so close to food, yet never eating. During the 19th century, Dwight Moody founded a Bible College because he saw this dilemma in among church leaders. He put it this way: “The greatest problem among ministers in my generation is they are trafficking unlived truth.”
“The Starving Baker” is a “Habitude.” Habitudes are images that form leadership habits and attitudes. Habitudes™ is a book series I am hoping will restore healthy leadership to our schools. “The Starving Baker” is simply a picture I hope you heed as I did. I hope it haunts you in a wonderful way the rest of your life. It simply reminds us that leaders must feed themselves before they feed anyone else. It’s actually the most selfless thing you can do. By feeding yourself, you enter your classroom full, speaking out of the overflow, instead of from yesterday’s “lesson plans.” I believe becoming a “starving baker” is the greatest occupational hazard for teachers and leaders.
So, Where Do We Begin?
When I recognized this struggle in my life, I decided to go back to the basics. I determined to develop a plan for personal growth. I am embarrassed to say, I had drifted from this discipline in the busyness of my career. Every year since 1987, I have taken a day in January and spent time alone reviewing the previous year and previewing the next year. My review involves looking over my past goals and accomplishments. My preview involves setting some new goals in the areas I really wish to grow in the coming year.
For instance, this year I decided I wanted to grow in six areas. Some were repeats form the last year; some were new. My six areas are: communication skills, leadership, financial investments, the art of negotiating, marketing and writing. In other words, just like a restaurant plans what to offer on their menu, I planned a menu for personal growth.
Next, I began choosing books I would read this year. I read two books a month. One to help me in these categories, and the other for pure personal growth—ones that will help me be a better husband, a better dad, a better man. I am growing as a teacher and as a person.
Third, I chose teaching CDs and DVDs I would listen to and watch for growth. Almost every time I drive somewhere, I am listening to a great speech or lecture or sermon in one of these categories. The console of my car is filled with discs that I listen to in route to my destination. I drive a university on wheels.
Fourth, once I determined the six areas in which I wanted to grow, I chose six people who could be mentors or coaches for me in those areas. I didn’t ask any one person to be an all-encompassing guru, like Socrates or Plato. I simply asked each person to meet me for lunch on a regular basis and allow me to ask them questions in the specific area I felt they had expertise. None of them turned me down. Those lunches are simple, informal and always fulfilling. I think it is a win/win conversation for both of us.
Finally, I am always on the lookout for new insights and resources in the areas I have chosen to “eat” this year. My food may come from a magazine (I subscribe to nine of them), or a friend, or a new acquaintance I meet out of town on a trip. Once I know what I wish to digest, the food for this starving baker seems to be everywhere. It reminds me of the old adage: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
This is Not Selfish
I just returned from a trip to China. As our jet taxied on the runway, the flight attendant stood up to give the little safety speech airlines always give. You know the speech—the one about seatbelts, exits and seat cushions. I paid close attention to one part of the speech. It is the part about the oxygen masks that drop down from the ceiling in case of an emergency. Do you remember what they always tell you to do when that happens? They tell you to put the mask on yourself first before trying to help anyone else. Hmmm. Do you know what I noticed when the flight attendant gave those directions? Not one person on that flight stood up and griped, “Well, that just sounds very selfish to put the mask on myself first. I can’t believe you’d tell us to do such a selfish thing.”
Of course no one responded that way. Why? Because we all know a person won’t be able to help anyone for long if they don’t place the oxygen mask on themselves first. Bingo. That’s all I am saying to you. Don’t be a starving baker. You have to feed yourself before you feed anyone else.